Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Story is a Promise

For the next several days, I’ll be posting about the experiences I had with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop at the Grand Lake Writers Getaway last week.

My first workshop was called Great Scenes & Sequences, Part I, led by Alexander O. Philippe, MFA. Please check out the link to read his impressive bio and credentials.

Alexandre is a charming, bright, talented screenwriter and film maker and a charismatic instructor and speaker. He was born and raised in Switzerland, where he hosted film salons for his parents’ friends starting at the age of thirteen.

In this workshop, Alexandre used great movie clips and film deconstruction to break down the narrative elements of successful scenes and sequences.

Alexandre started the class off by reminding us that a story is promise. He sketched out the classic three act story format. I’ve attempted to recreate my notes from class in the drawing below.

We loosely defined scenes as story elements that convey setting, a period in time, occur in real-time, permit a slowing down of the action, include action of some kind, include one or more characters and may include dialogue. We then further defined a sequence as a series of scenes that are linked together. In fiction, a sequence may also constitute a chapter.

Much as there is a story arc to the entire work, each scene or sequence also has an arc and must serve to define character and/or move the story forward. To illustrate this, Alexandre showed us a film clip of the opening sequence in the movie Minority Report, a movie based on the Philip K. Dick short story published in 1956. This example shows us a very fast moving sequence of linked scenes in which we’re shown a man and woman about to engage in a sexual encounter, who are then observed by another man who bursts into the room and violently murders them. These images cut back and forth to The Division of Precrime, where we see the images of this crime being transmitted via three “precogs” who are somehow wired up to an elaborate audio visual display, showing this futuristic division images of a crime that is about to be committed. Immediately, we’re given a crisis scenario – a violent crime is about to be committed, the division has been given the names of the victims and the perpetrator and need to determine where the crime scene is. We cut to Tom Cruise entering the building and exchanging some banter with a coworker. This chit chat quickly characterizes Tom Cruise as dedicated, but also somewhat personable. The stakes continue to be raised as the team is having difficulty with the address and the clock is ticking – they are maybe 15 minutes away from the time the crime will be committed. Enter Colin Firth, from a separate federal agency. He is observing the Washington, DC based Division of Precrime and his oversight raises tension further. As the team continues to work, he’s brought up to speed on what’s happening – a show, don’t tell method of providing exposition. Cut to a scene earlier that morning in the home of the woman and the perpetrator. We now see that there’s tension at breakfast, the man she’ll later be in bed with is hanging around in a park across the street from the house, the husband notices him and mentions it to the wife, who changes the subject. The husband is obviously suspicious as she tries to rush him off to work. At nearly the last moment, Tom Cruise deduces where they are through the use of the images generated by the precogs, the team arrives at the crime scene, stops the crime from being committed and apprehends the perpetrator. The final image in the sequence of scenes is of the Division of Precrime about to put some kind of device on the perpetrator and the perpetrator is obviously terrified of this happening. Tom Cruise’s face doesn’t show him as especially happy about this, possibly just resigned.

A great deal of things are accomplished in this rapid fire opening sequence of scenes. We’re given some insight into character, we know something about the fictional organization, the basis for the premise of the story – which is grounded in the age old fate versus free will question – is established, we have an inciting incident to launch the action and we are left with a lot of questions that compel is to keep watching (or reading). Who/what are the precogs? What is the federal guy doing monitoring this program? What’s the ominous device that the perpetrator is terrified of?

Alexandre uses film deconstruction to very effectively illustrate the components of dramatic structure and he further uses a sequence from the film classic, To Have and To Have Not to further illustrate the more subtle nuances of characters, each with desires they are unwilling to outwardly state. The dialogue based scenes are a great illustration of the use of subtext.

The other great example Alexandre uses in illustrating dramatic structure is the story of The Wizard of Oz. We have an inciting incident just prior to the start of the story (movie), where Toto has bitten Miss Gulch. We are drawn a picture of Dorothy, who feels like she doesn’t belong and wishes she could be over the rainbow. To protect Toto, she decides to run away and runs into the tinker, who encourages her to go home, but then the tornado hits – Plot Point 1 – and sets up a situation where she’s reached a point of no return because she lands in Oz – on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. The Major Dramatic Question becomes, will she get home again and the underlying premise of the story that supports the entire plot is that there’s no place like home. Throughout the story, Dorothy is hit with increasing stakes and crises. First, she needs to find the wizard, then she does and he sends her off to get the broom from the Wicked Witch of the West, finally she does and the Wizard turns out to be a phony, but finally, we do get Resolution and she goes home and finds that each character had what they wanted all along and that there is no place like home.

One of Alexandre’s basic assumptions throughout the workshop is that we must know how the story will end. We can pre-write without knowing exactly what will happen, but by the 100 page point, we need to know where we’re going to end up so that all scenes and sequences can lead to that moment. He quoted William Golding as saying that everything drives to the final chapter and in order to honor the promise that the story makes at the beginning, we need to provide a satisfying resolution and answer the major dramatic question.

So an inciting incident that may or may not occur within the story starts us off, and through sequences of scenes that may constitute chapters, Plot Points provide mini climaxes to each act by delivering story events usually greater than any other prior to it them in each act, Crises provide moments of opportunity that eventually culminate into the story’s Climax and finally, we provide Resolution and at that point, the Major Dramatic Question should be answered.

In the classic three act structure, we use Act I to put our protagonist in a tree, in Act II we throw rocks at her and in Act III, we bring her back down.

It was a great workshop and the use of film deconstruction was an immediate and effective way to illustrate dramatic structure. This session served to anchor my thinking throughout the remainder of the week. What is the purpose of each scene? How does it serve to advance the story and/or develop the character? Is it building toward the last chapter, supporting the premise and working toward answering the Major Dramatic Question?


Larramie said...

How interesting. Visual examples obviously illustrate writing elements so clearly that they become almost impossible to forget. Also, knowing how the story will end is something that's being talked about more. And, of course, for the structure of any writing it makes sense. This is impressive, Lisa, as well as good of you to share.

Scott Mattlin said...


This is fascinating. Even for a non-writer.

NOW, is there any of that pizza that you ordered the other night left in the fridge?

:) I love you, -S

Lisa said...

Larramie, it's fascinating to me that more and more, movies are being used to illustrate a way to craft a compelling story. Action movies provide obvious cues to how this is done, but certainly a slower moving story, like The Remains of the Day also contains the same elements. At one point in the retreat I had a discussion with another instructor about how contemporary fiction being published demands more action and faster than it once did and I wondered aloud if many of the writers we now consider to be masters (Bellow, Roth, Updike) would even be able to release a debut novel today, given that their stories don't necessarily IMMEDIATELY hook the reader.

Scott, you are too funny! You know I ate all that pizza yesterday :)
Love you too

Shauna Roberts said...

Many of the workshops I've taken at the Romance Writers of America conference have built on three-act structure and used films as examples. (And they always seem to use The Wizard of Oz as one example!) I guess it's becoming a common structural technique for all kinds of writers.

Did it come as a big revelation to you, or have you been using something similar in your own work without a name for it?

Lisa said...

Shauna, you've asked an excellent question. In my "home schooling" I'd read extensively about all of the elements that we discussed. What taking the workshop enabled me to do and what the film deconstruction helped so much with was being able to see everything working together. Until the retreat, I was having a difficult time keeping all of the questions cohesively in my mind so that I could look at a first chapter and ask, have I created a sense of place, compelling character, introduced or implied an inciting incident, used dialogue appropriately, do I know how I'm going to challenge this character, throw rocks, build to a climax so that ultimately I can end the story and support the underlying premise. These were all things I knew on some level, but the workshop and then the ones that followed really helped me to see the big picture and zoom in and out between it and individual scenes. And apparently, The Wizard of Oz is the perfectly constructed story, using the classic hero's journey -- which made me think of you and Gilgamesh :)

reality said...

Thank You Lisa for this wonderful post. I have learnt much from it and hopefully the next posts shall raise some more questions, about my own WIP.

Therese said...

Zowie, this is great! I love examining film structure and storytelling; movies give all the elements of fiction packaged neatly into about two hours' study.

As to the matter of quick hooks and the fulfillment of promises, my editor said something when I saw her last that resonates with me: of all the activities competing for adults' free time, reading is one of the hardest. Thus, writers should always aim to give a reader, of whatever kind of story, her money and time's worth.

Lisa said...

Reality, I'm glad you enjoyed. I have more subjects and posts to make on the workshops I attended -- all awesome -- and I find it's actually a great exercise to try to write up a post on each in order to really make sure I rethink about what I learned in each. Stay tuned -- I hope you enjoy the posts to come and keep at those revisions :)

Therese, since it was the first time for me, it was great! I actually do a lot of movie deconstruction on my own anyway, but I can do it in an even more meaningful way now.

Your editor's words are spot on and exactly what I kept hearing all week as well. At a little past the halfway mark in reading Souvenir -- I'll bet the structure of your novel needed little significant editing with regard to the structure (just a hunch) -- Mission accomplished and Souvenir lives up to your editor's wise words. I am hooked! :)

Therese said...

Oh, couldn't we just talk all day about craft!

To be candid, my editor didn't suggest a single structural change. Which isn't to say that, given additional time/thought it couldn't be improved (everything can be improved)!

Maybe when you're all done reading we can chat about particulars by phone...that would be a good excuse to talk in real time!

Lisa said...

I had a feeling you were probably an editor's dream :)

I would LOVE to talk about this when I'm finished!

reality said...

I am watching this space very carefully and two times a day from now on.
Thank you so much for sharing.

One of my favorites to deconstruct is Boston Legal. there is a story arc that I love following and analyzing.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf